Lindsay Whalen had trouble sleeping after her first loss as a coach. She added nausea to her sleep deprivation after the second loss.
“I felt like I was going to throw up for 48 straight hours after the Illinois loss,” Whalen said. “I had never had that as a player.”
She didn’t lose much as a player. And she had more control over the outcome of games because she usually had the ball in her hands.
Now, the basketball icon stands on the sideline in dress clothes. Not helpless, but certainly not with as much influence over whether the Gophers win or lose.
“I’ve got to call timeouts,” she said, laughing.
This is a learning year for Whalen in immeasurable ways as she starts Act II of her adult life. She retired as the winningest player in WNBA history. She won at every level along the way. NCAA Final Four appearance, WNBA championships, Olympic gold medals and world championships.
Whalen is an all-time winner and competitor. She hates to lose. She’ll try to take your lunch money in a game of checkers.
As a coach, her team has lost five of its past six games entering Thursday’s home contest against Purdue. This is a new experience. Whalen still hates to lose, but she views it with big-picture patience.
“Not that I’m accepting losing at all,” she said, “but I kind of understand at the same time that this is a really big growing year and learning year for me and the players.”
Athletic director Mark Coyle made a home-run hire in Whalen for many reasons. Her basketball knowledge should be obvious to anyone who paid attention to her career, and her stature will carry weight in recruiting. And at the box office. The Gophers rank 11th nationally in average home attendance at 5,873, an increase of 2,700 fans per game from last season.
She’s not a miracle worker, though. She didn’t inherit UConn’s roster. Learning to coach while building a program always was going to be a process, not something as simple as Whalen walking back into the Barn and snapping her fingers.
“I’ve learned from watching all the other Big Ten coaches,” she said. “They’ve been doing it for 20-something years.”
Little lessons such as a situation in a loss to Iowa. The Hawkeyes went on a run in the second half. Whalen waited for the media timeout because she wanted to keep two timeouts for the fourth quarter.
“Well, we got down by 15 so having two timeouts, what does that matter?” she said.
Sunday’s loss at Nebraska brought another gut punch. The Gophers led by six points with four minutes remaining. The Cornhuskers ripped off a 12-0 run to win.
As a player, Whalen could have taken the ball hard to the basket to stop the run. Or got a deflection on defense. Or hit a jump shot against Nebraska’s zone.
As coach, she didn’t sleep much replaying the ending and thinking about what more she could have done.
“It’s different as a coach,” she said. “I think I feel worse. As a player, you have some moments where you go, ‘I need to work on my three-point shooting or free throws.’ As coach, I’m finding out, ‘OK, how can I help? What more can I do?’ ”
Recruiting will be vital. The Gophers lack depth, experience, outside shooting and overall athleticism required in the Big Ten. Coaching alone can’t cover up the roster’s limitations. A 12-0 start against mostly weak competition masked their weaknesses.
Whalen will find her sea legs as coach too. She wore her emotions on her uniform as a player. She would scream and wave both arms to get the crowd whipped into a frenzy. She takes a different approach as coach.
“You have to stay more poised,” she said. “But at the same time, you know …”
She smiled. Her emotions still pour out on occasion. That part will never change.